Late-season squirrels and rabbits are the perfect excuse to get out and enjoy some warm winter sunshine.
I should’ve known better than to browse the used rack of the local gun store on my lunch break. Poking around such places gets on-the-spot expensive because the best deals on good used firearms don’t last long enough for you to go home and think about things.
A rifle caught my eye on that sunny January afternoon. It was a Marlin Golden 39-A, stamped “JM” on the barrel, and the old man behind the counter reckoned it was a 1953 model. The bluing was faded, but the gun was tight. That aside, I was looking at an example of perhaps the finest squirrel rifle ever made—and one of only two that I’d ever seen for sale in my life. I knew if I went home to think it over, it’d be gone when I returned. So we struck a deal, the old man and I. From there, any plans of working that afternoon would have to wait, because I was going squirrel hunting. It was breezy, a problem when squirrels are feeding up in the canopy during the early season, but an advantage in the late season, when they’re foraging on the ground. Wind covers your own noise. I walked to within 20 yards of the day’s first squirrel before he noticed me. It was a boar fox squirrel, with rufus flanks and an orange tail that flicked a few times as he studied me. I froze, and when the squirrel went back to his business of trimming an acorn husk, I shouldered the Marlin, steadied the bead on the squirrel’s shoulder, and settled it in the notch of the rear sight. Normally I’m a head-shot purist, but I normally hunt with a scoped rifle, too. I squeezed the trigger and the fox squirrel settled into a pile, killed instantly by a 37-grain hollowpoint. At that moment, I wondered how many squirrels that rifle had killed in its previous 68 years of service.Get Out And Go! That you have a new rifle you’re itching to use is one good reason to go small-game hunting in the winter, but there are others. Wintertime squirrels and rabbits move best on pleasant days, when the temperature is above average and the sun is shining. That’s when I like to be outside, too. Small game seasons are typically the last to close, in January and February. Where I live, rabbit season runs to about the middle of February, and squirrel season closes on the last day of the month.
But above all else, slipping around the woods for squirrels with a good rifle is about as much pure, low-pressure, inexpensive fun as you can have out hunting. The .22 Long Rifle is the classic choice, and most full-sized guns, antique and brand new, shoot well enough for squirrel hunting. Open sights suffice, but a scope is a decided advantage.Punchier rimfire rounds also work. My favorite squirrel gun is actually a heavy-barreled .17 HMR topped with a 3-9×40 scope. It’s too destructive for body-shooting squirrels, but the rifle is so accurate that I can take head-shots exclusively to 100 yards. I have squirrel hunting buddies who tote .17 Mach 2s, and even .22 WMRs. Those calibers work just fine, too, so long as the gun is a good shooter and the hunter is disciplined enough to wait for head shots. Where To Hunt. Some refer to small game as if rabbits and squirrels are interchangeable, but they’re definitely not. Late-season rabbit hunters need to bury into overgrown fencerows and thickets to kick bunnies out of their hides. At best, it’s a low-odds hunt with a rimfire, with novelty that wears off quickly after a few blackberry briars to the face. Proper rabbit hunting is done with buddies behind good beagle hounds, and that’s a shotgunner’s game, both for practicality and safety reasons.
Still, where seasons overlap, there’s no good reason to pass on a cottontail caught sitting in the sun or to walk past a brush pile without giving it a little kick while you’re sneaking around for squirrels. I’d just consider rabbits more of a bonus.But a hunter can set out for squirrels in earnest on a good late-season day and likely return with enough for supper, if not a full limit. Squirrels usually sleep in during the late season and as such, I like to hunt late morning, just after the frost burns off, or in the afternoon.
This time of year, gray and fox squirrels are caching what’s left of the fallen autumn mast. Head to open hardwood ridges, select a good vantage point, and sit. On a good, dry day you probably won’t wait long before hearing squirrels scurrying about on the ground. Frequently, the best ridges will have a few den trees and leafy nests (called dreys) visible, and those are especially productive posts to bag young adult squirrels born in the early fall. As table fare goes, the young ones are best.You might have such a ridge on your deer lease, but squirrel hunting is one of the few hunts east of the Mississippi where public land can provide more and better opportunity than private. Many eastern WMAs and forests consist mostly of mature, old-growth timber. That’s not the best habitat for whitetails, turkeys, or rabbits, but it is prime for gray squirrels. Sit a ridge awhile and if you don’t have action within 20 or 30 minutes, move along. Squirrels will concentrate wherever there is mast and this time of year, it’s not laying everywhere.Such was the case on that maiden hunt with my new Marlin. After killing the fox squirrel, I slipped across a couple finger ridges, stopping and listening as I moved, before I crossed a creek branch lined with poplar and sycamore. I moved through that quickly, knowing it’d be unproductive, but slowed as I walked into another series of hardwood ridges on the other side of the creek bottom. I remembered a cluster of white oaks on a ridge that had been fruitful back in October, during bow season, and as I slipped closer to it, I could hear squirrels on the ground. I soon saw a pair of grays spiraling down a large oak with a cavernous hole in the trunk. It was a den tree, and I suspected the pair of grays would both be young, tender critters well suited to a dredge through seasoned flour and a skillet of hot grease. When they jumped to the ground and momentarily disappeared over the break of the ridge, I hustled ahead and settled the .22 across my knee. I could lie and tell you I killed those two squirrels in two shots. Truthfully, I was thankful for my new gun’s tubular magazine filled to its limit with 15 cartridges. I walked back to the truck with three squirrels and my rifle in hand, feeling like I’d gotten a pretty good bargain on the day in general. My plan was to go home, mount a scope, and then watch the forecast for another sunny afternoon.